Solar eclipse tourism brings 'unprecedented' fire danger

Eclipse brings 'unprecedented' fire danger

The total solar eclipse hits across Oregon on Aug. 21 just after 10 a.m.

We've investigated how some hotels are jacking up rates to make money off it. But emergency officials say there's another concern that's worse: the fire danger and emergency response when something goes wrong. They say the danger is in all the millions of people who will be outside and in the forest to watch this.

The exact week the total solar eclipse will hit Oregon this year was a wildfire nightmare for Central Oregon last year. That week was in the middle of when 14 wildfires broke out in just three weeks, all of them human-caused.

Officials expect at least one million people from out of state to flock to Oregon to see the eclipse, in addition to all of the Oregonians driving to get a better view.

Officials are getting ready.

"The eclipse of 2017 is going to be coming right at the traditional maximum of high fire danger for Oregon and Washington," said John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

Hotels and campsites are sold out, farmers are even renting out empty fields for tent campers. One eclipse party called Symbiosis Oregon Eclipse 2017 is predicted to bring 30,000-50,000 people who are coming for live music and days of camping in the woods outside Prineville. It means campfires, cigarettes, fireworks; a recipe for disaster in our driest month.

"With people coming from all over North America and elsewhere to converge on the area, I think the risk of an excessive number of accidental starts from human beings is going to be high," Saltenberger said. "This is an unprecedented event. It's outside the realm of what our background research shows. So we're kind of moving into uncharted territory in terms of the number of people in the woods."

Central and Eastern Oregon will be more susceptible to fires, he says. And just because we had so much rain doesn't mean fire season will be weak this year. If anything, more grasses have grown, and that's double the amount of fuel when it gets dry. It also depends on weather such as lightning strikes during fire season itself.

While the eclipse lasts minutes on a Monday, people will be camping for days over the weekend leading up to it. Think about the traffic: Jammed freeways and forest service roads. Will fire trucks or ambulances be able to get there, or evacuate anyone in gridlock? Will 911 calls even go through if cell towers are overwhelmed?

Officials have been meeting for months to prepare. The governor will get looped into the plans soon. They say pop-up emergency centers around the state will be ready for whatever comes. But Oregon can't ask for more federal help or fire response until an emergency actually happens.

"We've never experienced anything like this," said Carol Connolly, information officer for the Northwest Interagency Dispatch Center. "We're very good at busy holiday weekends, we know what to prepare. But a million new people coming into the state? That's a lot of preparation that's happening."

She says people should be prepared to be in their car for a long time, have enough water and gas, and have an actual printed map of where you're going because cell towers could be down.

Click here for more solar eclipse safety information

© 2017 KGW-TV


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